The latest report out of Stillwater claims that starting Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, who ranks among the country's top 25 in passer rating and yards per game, is expected to be back on the field against Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. Rudolph injured his foot in the Cowboys' loss to Baylor, played just one series in the regular-season finale against Oklahoma, then had surgery to repair a fracture in early December.
In the event that Rudolph's recovery doesn't proceed as expected, Oklahoma State will go with veteran backup/short-yardage specialist J.W. Walsh. What is interesting is that even when Rudolph, who passed for over 3,500 yards as a sophomore this season, was healthy, Walsh played a good bit as a type of "change of pace" quarterback, and it worked.
For some reason I was originally under the impression that Rudolph missed most of the game against Baylor and was planning to calculate, using the Cowboys' final two games as a small-but-relevant sample size, just how impactful Rudolph is to his team. But attempting to extrapolate much of anything from one game against a playoff contender probably doesn't make much sense.
Instead, let's take a look at each quarterback and what they bring to the Oklahoma State offense. Even if Rudolph does go, there's a good chance the Rebels will see Walsh anyway.
In fact, Walsh scored more touchdowns (24) than Rudolph (22) this season. How did that happen? Well, Walsh's five-touchdown performance against Kansas didn't hurt, but more than that Walsh was asked to run a lot. On the season, he averaged just under six rushing attempts per game and 4.3 yards per carry as a "backup." Here's a fantastic article the Cowboys Ride For Free wrote about the Walsh package. If you like deep-dives into football strategy, you should definitely read it. There's a solid understanding of football there. Suffice it to say, Walsh is exceptional at picking up tough yardage on the ground and making the right read as to where the defense is guessing the ball will be.
But that's not his whole game. He's not just some gimmicky (I hate that word, but... it sort of applies to the way people think) quarterback who can only succeed in a short-yardage setting. On 71 passing attempts this season (a significant sample size), Walsh is averaging 9.3 yards per passing attempt. He has thrown thirteen touchdowns and only one interception. In his lone start of the season, stepping in for the injured Rudolph, Walsh completed 25 of his 42 pass attempts for 325 yards with two touchdowns and his only interception of the year. Remember, that's against an Oklahoma team whose defense ranks in the top 25 in both scoring and yardage. It was an impressive performance by a player who has clearly flourished in a backup role he has accepted as a senior.
Walsh has accepted that backup role for good reason. Sophomore sensation Mason Rudolph was poised to overtake Brandon Wheeden as the school's single-season passing record holder entering the showdown against Oklahoma. He needed just 500 yards in Oklahoma State's final two games, a near certainty for an Oklahoma State quarterback.
Rudolph is a pocket passer and is exceptional in that role. As a sophomore, he has completed 63 percent of his passes and thrown 21 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. He is not, however, a runner. On the season, Rudolph has 62 "carries" for -12 yards... and that's with a 40 yard run sprinkled in. Let me remind you now that sack yardage factors into quarterback rushing totals in college for some reason that will never make any sense to me. Oklahoma State quarterbacks have been sacked 29 times this season. To give you some perspective, Ole Miss quarterbacks have been sacked just seventeen times (regardless of whether Laremy Tunsil was in the game). That could make a big difference, especially with a quarterback who is returning from injury.
He's capable of making huge throws and has god touch on the deep ball. Here's the only highlight film I could find from this season. It's all from the TCU game and only shows his touchdown passes (all five of them), but let me add that I've watched him play several times and think he's a great quarterback.
So what does it all mean?
I think that the most interesting takeaway is that Oklahoma State is able to use two very different quarterbacks quite successfully and isn't in a problematic situation if one of them can't go. Sure, they'd rather have Rudolph available, but if their only healthy option is Walsh, they have still shown they can move the football and put up points. To have a quarterback like Walsh, a gamer, who doesn't turn the ball over is an uncommon thing. Couple that with a phenomenal young pocket passer, and the Oklahoma State offense is tough to stop.